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Sensible drinking


Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due April 2021

Many of us enjoy having a drink on social occasions or to help us relax after a long day. While this shouldn’t do you too much harm, it’s important to remember that alcohol is associated with various health risks. Sensible drinking means not drinking more than the recommended levels of alcohol each week. It involves being aware of how much you’re drinking, knowing your own limits and avoiding drinking too much in one go. Knowing how to enjoy alcohol in moderation is a key part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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What are the drinking limits?

It’s not possible to be precise about how much alcohol is ‘safe’ for you to drink. Drinking any amount of alcohol, be it regularly or on occasion, can affect your health. But by following the low risk guidelines, you can take steps to limit the effects of alcohol on your health.

Regular drinkers

If you're a regular drinker (meaning you drink most weeks), current guidelines recommend not drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week. If you do, try to spread them out evenly over at least three days of the week.

Tip: A helpful way to cut back on your intake is to have some drink-free days each week.

Occasional drinkers

Not all of us are regular drinkers, but this doesn’t mean we abstain from alcohol. If you like to have a drink from time-to-time, it’s important to be aware of the risks associated with occasional drinking. Drinking too much, too quickly, or on an empty stomach can increase your risk of accidents and injury, and compromise your self-control.

If you’re an occasional (or regular) drinker you can help to keep yourself safe by:

  • limiting the amount of alcohol you drink at any one time
  • drinking slowly, and alternating your drinks between alcohol and water
  • making sure you've had something to eat before drinking alcohol
  • drinking in a safe environment, with people around you that you know

Find out more about the health risks of drinking alcohol.

How many units are in your drink?

How much alcohol your drink contains is usually expressed as a percentage of alcohol by volume (%ABV). By law, alcoholic drinks containing over 1.2%ABV must have a label that clearly shows how much alcohol they contain. They must also show how much drink is in their product (the volume).

Some brands give the number of units of alcohol the drink contains on the packaging too. Keeping track of the amount of alcohol you drink in units is a simple way to keep tabs on your intake. One unit is equal to 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. This is the amount of alcohol an average adult can process in one hour, although this varies from one person to another.

If you can’t find the units of alcohol on your drink, you can work it out using this calculation.

(Volume of drink (ml) x %ABV)/1000

For example, if you have a pint of beer (568ml) that is 4%ABV, multiply 568 by 4. This equals 2272. Divide this by 1000 and you get 2.3. So, a pint of 4%ABV beer contains 2.3 units of alcohol.

The number of units of alcohol in different drinks varies. It’s also rare that the usual measure your drink comes in will contain just one unit. Here are some common drinks you might order at the bar and how many units they contain.

  • One 25ml (single) measure of spirit (37.5% ABV) is equal to one unit.
  • A 175ml (medium) glass of red wine (12% ABV) is equal to two units.
  • A pint of beer (5% ABV) contains 2.8 units.
  • A pint of cider (6% ABV) contains 3.4 units.

Something else to bear in mind is that the same type of drink can vary in strength between different brands. For example, some wines and lagers contain more alcohol than others. What’s more, bars and restaurants offer a variety of measures. Here are some examples.

Spirits

These come in measurements of 25ml, 35ml or multiples of these – a double could be 50ml or 70ml, for example.

Wine

Wine comes in measurements of 125ml, 175ml or multiples of these – a large glass could be 250ml or 350ml, for example.

To track how many units you’re drinking, try our alcohol calculator. There are also apps for your phone that can help you keep track.

Tips to help you drink sensibly

If you’re planning to enjoy a drink (or two), here are some practical tips to help you drink sensibly and within the recommended limits.

  • Eat before you drink so alcohol is absorbed more slowly by your body.
  • Go for a spritzer or shandy – this can help to ‘water down’ or dilute the amount of alcohol in your drink.
  • Remember your measures. Opt for smaller measures where you can – a single measure of spirits, a small glass of wine or bottle (rather than pint) of beer.
  • Steer clear of rounds and don’t be pressured into drinking quicker than you feel comfortable with.
  • Swap in soft drinks. Where you can, alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Keep tabs on how much you’re drinking – remember to account for top-ups.

When should I avoid alcohol altogether?

It takes about one hour for your body to process each unit of alcohol, although this varies from person to person. The more you drink, the longer it will take for the effects of alcohol to clear. There are times when not drinking alcohol at all is the safest choice. These include the following.

  • Before you plan to drive or when you’re driving – alcohol affects people differently so it’s best not to drink at all.
  • Before or when you’re operating machinery or electrical equipment, or doing some DIY.
  • Before or during swimming or other active sports.
  • When you’re taking certain medicines – always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.
  • When you’re pregnant or trying for a baby. Drinking alcohol while you’re pregnant can affect your baby’s health and development.


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  • Reviewed by Laura Blanks, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, April 2018
    Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due April 2021



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